The Weakness of Libertarianism

December 12, 2018 Updated: December 20, 2018

Libertarianism commands respect today as the only personal and political philosophy of the Western world standing in defense of individual freedom from state power. For that reason alone, it must be nourished. It is the last surviving remnant of old-style “classical liberalism,” which began in 17th-century Europe as a philosophy poised against the absolute rulers of the age.

This early liberalism turned its guns on the power of the state and became the most important anti-statist, anti-centralization intellectual force of the Western world. In large measure, we can thank it for the constitutional safeguards against overbearing central power that were implanted in the American and Canadian constitutions.

This is to little avail today, as the courts in both nations have found ways to circumvent many of those safeguards.

The Evolution of Classical Liberalism

But this original and very successful classical liberalism movement eventually became disappointed with the actual results of liberty, with the bald fact that so many of the newly-free ended up poor and uneducated. So, it was slowly overtaken as well as co-opted by socialist radicals demanding state-funded social security and other benefits as a “higher freedom” for all. Today, modern liberalism has become our chief pro-statist political philosophy.

In other words, classical liberalism surrendered its original foundation in liberty and switched it up for a new foundation in forced equality. Society in general started to prefer more socialist and statist platforms.

Liberalism mutated from its original foundation in an equal start-line philosophy to an equal finish-line philosophy—from an anti-statist to a pro-statist party.

This has left us with modern libertarianism as the only clear defender of individual liberty, and in fulfilling this important task it has produced many of our most stirring protests against state power. However, sadly, libertarians often fail to recognize the weakness of their own otherwise very appealing philosophy: its doctrinaire disregard for any commonly shared conception of the good of society at which we ought to aim, not only as individuals but as a people.  

This weakness exists because libertarians imagine there are only two players in the political game—the coercive state at the top and free individuals at the bottom. Political reality is far more complicated. In all free nations—distinctly not so in unfree ones—there are three players, not just two, and they are distinguished by their very different modes of control.

The state at the top has a monopoly on force, and its mode of control is power. This layer is the focus of centralizing socialists. At the bottom, there are free individuals whose signal mode of control is self-control. This layer is the focus of libertarians.

‘Hands Off’

Between these two, in the middle layer, lies the only historically reliable protection from total state power that has ever been successful: a free and functioning civil society that is able to say to the state in the name of all: “Hands off!” Such resistance is only possible because, contrary to what libertarians believe, society is not “an abstraction” or “a fiction.” It is far more than the sum of its individuals, and we know this because social and moral relationships cannot be derived from individuals alone.

That is why this is the layer that is the focus of true conservatives, as distinct from today’s typical liberalized conservative. That is why a true conservative will speak, as did Edmund Burke, and David Hume before him, of the priority of “social freedom” over mere “individual freedom.”  

In order to achieve its considerable binding power, civil society must rely on social and moral authority, rather than on coercion or power. Just so, we freely and naturally accept the authority of our parents, coaches, teachers, and leaders (or reject it) to our benefit or at our peril. The control we feel among our fellow humans in civil society is indeed moral and social control, direction, inspiration, and yes, often prohibition and shame. It is the sum of all the acknowledged shalls and shall-nots of a free society.

What libertarians do not understand is the responsibility we all must share for the vigor or weakness of this middle layer, for they simply have nothing to say about this except, “Don’t harm me.” In other words, they have nothing to say about the many activities, policies, and beliefs that—beyond their destructive effect on mere individuals—may as clearly be destructive of civil society itself, of our traditions, customs, community standards, social affections, and the traditional decencies of our commonly held way of life. Indeed, if they do speak of such things, it is usually to protest that these, too, are forms of moral oppression, rather than our best defenses against state power.

It is in overlooking these fundamental truths and distinctions that we can fairly describe libertarianism as “a simple faith.”

Its devotees miss the plain fact that it is value-sharing citizens concerned for far more than themselves as mere individuals who are the very best barrier against naked power. This is only possible when we behave as conscious participants in the creation of common moral bonds that make the good society something far more than the sum of its individual parts.

William Gairdner is an author living near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow William on Twitter: @williamgairdner